Thirty years ago the Legend of Zelda was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Over the past three decades it has become one of the foundations upon which every Nintendo system has been built. It belongs to the holy trinity of Nintendo Franchises (along with Mario and the recently-ignored Metroid) which are almost* always guaranteed big releases on each console (*Metroid). Whereas Mario focused on action and quick reflexes, Zelda was about exploration and relied on puzzle solving and adventure. It was a great compliment to the Mario series and sold like hotcakes on the NES (and every other console thereafter).
As consoles have advanced and games have evolved in style, Zelda has grown and changed. The basic core concept of exploration, puzzle solving and adventure have remained in tact but so much has changed from its 1986 beginnings. The series moved to 3D, added western RPG elements and even a full symphony score. Almost all of the advancements in the series have been warmly received but there’s something else that has been steadily changing over the years, and not for the better.
The time between you starting the game and actually “starting” the game has grown from nil to near-infinity.
Let’s walk through just some of the major releases in the franchise, to see how things have gone downhill in terms of how quickly they let you actually begin your quest.
THE “PICK UP AND PLAY” GAMES
THE LEGEND OF ZELDA
You want a tutorial? Read the manual. You want a backstory? Read the manual. You want character motivation? Read the manual. If you want a long introductory sequence that establishes all the various tools and functions of the game, while holding your hand and guiding you around like a school kid, go play Twilight Princess. In this game, you enter your name, press start, and then begin. You begin in the middle of a barren field with a small cave in front of you. Naturally you enter, meet the old man who says “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this.” and gives you a sword.
That line was always interesting to me: He doesn’t say it’s dangerous to go without a weapon. He says it’s dangerous to go alone, but doesn’t volunteer to go with you. He just points out to you, the player, “You’ve just started a game that is going to feature your character dying. A lot.” and then gives you a sword to go make the best of it. That’s it. That’s your tutorial, just some guy saying “welp, you’re gonna die. Have fun!”
Time from start of the game to “start of the game” – 20 seconds to enter the cave, get the sword and exit.
ZELDA II: THE ADVENTURE OF LINK
The NES sequel to the first game was just as quick to start the action. You begin in the enemy-free palace where Zelda sleeps peacefully. That’s a nice twist on the classic formula: You begin the game with the princess, and spend the rest of the game moving farther and farther (further?) away from her. Again, this opening room is devoid of any enemies, but you are allowed to move back and forth and stay as long as you want. You can get a feel for the side-scrolling controls (different from the first one) at your own pace. The game doesn’t force you to wade through a slow-developing backstory designed to teach you “tha basicz.” Those games are death when you’re on your twentieth playthrough.
Zelda II plops you in the castle and you can bolt out of there instantly. No hassle. As soon as you exit the castle you are on the map and you won’t walk ten seconds without being swarmed by enemies. By now the game has well and truly begun.
Time from start of the game to “start of the game” – 15-30 seconds (depending on how new you are to the game) to leave the castle and encounter your first enemy.
A LINK TO THE PAST
The SNES Zelda adventure returned to the first game for its inspiration. In fact the game is basically a souped-up version of the first title. The biggest change, however, is the emphasis on story. Still, despite there being an actual “plot” that progresses as you advance through the game, the game never slows down to tell its story and never stops being…a game! Even during the story-heavy opening sequence (everything from the rainy night to your leaving the sanctuary the first time), the entire opening of the “story” is background to the action that is happening around you (and to you). You wake up in the thunderstorm, exit your house, try to enter the castle’s front doors (if you’re a first time player) and eventually make your way to the hidden tunnel on the side. Once you fall in the pit, you’re in the game and the story is just unfolding around you.
In my opinion, this is the most seamless transition between plot and action in any Zelda game, and the perfect balance between “game” and “story” in the franchise. Link’s Awakening does a good job of this too. This game is a nice transition from the older, “start and go” games on the NES, to the more tutorial-based openings the next entries would feature.
Time from start of the game to “start of the game” – 1-2 minutes (depending on how new you are to the game) to leave your house and enter the castle basement.
THE “LEARN ON THE RUN” GAMES
OCARINA OF TIME
Because this was the first time Zelda entered the 3rd Dimension, as well as the fact that this is one of the pioneering 3D games (along with Mario 64), it’s understandable that Nintendo would want to give a little more attention to making sure the player has his feet wet before jumping in. To that end, the Kokari Forest serves as the playground for you the gamer to move around in, learning the various 3D mechanics while also doing some plot-necessary questing.
Once the extended cinematic is complete (which only takes a brief four minutes) you are free to leave your tree house and begin collecting rupies for your shield, navigating an obstacle course/maze to acquire your sword and learning how to Z-target friends and foes as you make your way to each of your little destinations. It’s obviously a tutorial, but it’s briskly paced and never feels too hand-holding, and before you know it you’re in the Great Deku Tree exploring your first dungeon.
Time from start of the game to “start of the game” – 8 minutes to explore Kokiri Forest and enter the Deku Tree.
Naturally, since Majora’s Mask is so structurally different from any other Zelda game, it’s hard to categorize it in terms of its opening tutorial. When does it end? On the one hand you could say it ends when you go back in time for the first time after your first “final day” confrontation with Skull Kid. But that’s really more of the ending to the story’s first act. We’re dealing with when the gameplay finally uncuffs you and lets you play. If that’s the metric, then really the game “starts” when you enter Clock Town.
The only real “stop and learn this” sequence in the beginning of the game is when you are hopping flowers for the first time as a Deku Scrub (just before that there’s a chance for you to run around as Link, just to get the feel for the controls if you didn’t play Ocarina before hand). Once you enter Clock Town, you will immediately have quests to complete and things to do that will be relevant to the whole rest of the game. Still, throughout the opening of the game, you’re never bored and even after multiple replays there’s really no part where you say “I wish the game would hurry up and let me play.”
Time from start of the game to “start of the game” – 10 minutes from the time you take control of your character to the time you enter Clock Town.
You’d think, as handheld game, that Link’s GBA adventure would feature a quick start, and while you are quickly allowed to control your character, you are forced to have your hand held as you navigate through the game’s opening sequence. Once you are able to move you are immediately denied the freedom to explore. Instead you follow Zelda around the festival in an opening that reminds one a lot of Chrono Trigger. But that’s a JRPG and not an action/adventure game. It’s only about two minutes from the time you enter your name and press start to the time you leave your bed and begin your trek through town with the princess. But the time you’re doing that is much longer and there’s a lot of stopping to show the story of the plot. A Link to the Past, this isn’t.
It’s not as long as some console Zelda games would get (not by a long shot) but for a handheld it’s really not a good fit, especially after your tenth playthrough. This game serves as a transition between the minor action-based tutorials of the N64 games, to the more hand-holding intro sequences the later installments would feature.
Time from start of the game to “start of the game” – 12 minutes from the time you wake up to the time you get the Hyrule map and head to the forest.
THE “SLOW DOWN, WHAT DO YOU THINK THIS IS, A GAME?” GAMES
Technically, Wind Waker came out a year and a half or so before Minish Cap, but that game’s design was only partially overseen by Nintendo (Capcom handled most of the development). Wind Waker, however, was the next fully-Nintendo developed game after Majora’s Mask. It did not mimic the unusual structure of that game, but instead returned to the more traditional design seen in Ocarina of Time. As with Ocarina, Wind Waker started the player in a friendly town that you could run around in before beginning the adventure, properly. Unlike in Ocarina, Wind Waker had only a few proper dungeons.
Whereas the N64 game transitioned you from tutorial to first dungeon very naturally (you get your sword and shield and then enter the Tree, easy-peasy), Wind Waker’s first action sequence takes place, not in a dungeon, but in a forest, as you attempt to rescue Tetra from Ganon’s minions. That action sequence is first teased, when you look through the telescope your sister gets your for your birthday, but even the tease doesn’t come until after seventeen minutes of running around town “learning the basics.” After you know what you have to do (adventure!) you still have to go to the sword master (tutorial!) and “fight him” (that is, you have to learn how to do all the various sword strikes, even if you’ve played the game fifty times before). Once you’ve done that, finally, you can head off on the adventure. It’s fun the first time, but after a few more times it can be very tiring indeed.
And even then, you’re still not granted the actual freedom to explore the map until you’ve climbed aboard Tetra’s ship, gone through the Forbidden Fortress, met the King of Red Lions and acquired a sail (no quick feat either). By that point, well over an hour has passed. But so much action has taken place that it wouldn’t be fair to knock the game for that.
Time from start of the game to “start of the game” – 21 minutes from the time your sister wakes you up to the time you get your sword and actually go do something with it.
Here it is: The absolute nadir of Zelda hand-holding, opening sequence tutorializing. As with Majora’s Mask there are a few different ways to consider when the tutorial actually ends and the “game” actually begins. It’s not just about being stopped to have every little aspect of the game explained to you. It’s also about actually having the freedom to go and explore the world. Wind Waker had this problem, but instead of considering it’s opening as 80 minutes, I went with 21 minutes because that’s how long it takes for the action to get rolling. With Twilight Princess, if you want to know how long it takes from the start of the game, when you exit your tree house and head for the village, to the point you actually get to explore Hyrule: The average player would have to play for almost three hours. Reminder: The first Zelda game had you exploring 20 seconds after you pressed start.
To apply the same standard on Twilight Princess that was given to Ocarina of Time, you still have to get through the farm life in the village, the journey to and from Hyrule Castle and to the Forest Temple, collecting those tedious “tears” along the way. Those tears weren’t about plot, they were about padding. I’d rather play a 20 hour game that was fun from beginning to end, than a 40 hour game that made me stop every little bit to go on a collect-a-thon. Even when you just consider how long it takes to enter the first dungeon, it’s still longer than all previous “intro” sequences combined.
Time from start of the game to “start of the game” – 1 hour, 40 minutes from the time you leave your tree house to the time you enter the Forest Temple.
Once you get past the now-standard opening movie, Skyward Sword begins with Link…at a school. That does not bode well for those tired of hand-holding and tutorials. It’s obvious that the designers were aware that the opening to Twilight Princess was too long and too meandering. They worked hard to streamline it here (there’s only about eight minutes from the time you “begin” to when you gain control of your character), but instead of just cutting the fat they also added in a lot more plot. Instead of letting the plot unfold around the action, ala A Link to the Past, they often slowed or stopped the game entirely to lay down the major beats of the story. And the story’s not bad, but having to hear Nintendo’s patented gibberish and grunts in place of actual voice acting makes each break in the action for story time a little more annoying as it goes on.
It takes about two hours, easily, before you reach your first dungeon. But Skyward Sword also put a lot of emphasis on action and fighting on the world map. So to be fair, let’s just consider how long it takes you to actually drop out of the sky onto Hyrule (Faron Woods) and start slicing and dicing bad guys. You have to first leave the school, meet Groose (the best), go through the “Wing Ceremony” and discover Fi (the worst). That’s still a LONG time.
Time from start of the game to “start of the game” – 1 hour, 10 minutes from the time you leave your room to the time you enter Faron Woods.
The recent 3DS game, A Link Between Worlds, is hopefully a sign that Nintendo is ready to move beyond slow, padded, extended introductory sequences. ALBW was modeled after the SNES game and as such features a brisk and action-packed opening. It also broke a lot of the conventional rules that Zelda had been restricted by (in some of the most dramatic ways not seen since Majora’s Mask in 2000).
Here’s hoping Breath of the Wild for WiiU/NX follows that mold and ditches the hand holding for some quickly-attainable action and adventure. We don’t necessarily have to start swinging a sword at a bokoblin 2 minutes after booting up the game, but anything less than…30 minutes would be wonderful.
This is a game born out of Miyamoto-san’s love of exploration and adventure. It’s time to get back to that; set Link free!